Walking and wildness: the Shropshire Hills

31/10/2015 My choice of walk this morning was partly due to the weather: it was blustery and raining. Since it was expected to improve mid morning, I thought that if I followed a circular route on Wenlock Edge, starting off in the woodland and then returning along the ridge of the hill, I would be sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain. Just now it occurs to me that rain has a linguistic advantage over wind. It can be rainy or raining, but it can only be windy. I wonder why something that, by definition, is moving, does not have its own verb.

By the time I arrived at Wilderhope Manor the clouds were already beginning to clear, so I decided to reverse the walk and start out in the open along the Shropshire Way. The sparsely vegetated arable farmland, not significantly different from my home landscape in Suffolk apart from the higher hills, was not exactly what I had imagined when I had read about Wenlock Edge. I turned off right down a lane to pass round the back of a cottage, but when I saw where the path continued and that the landscape showed no signs of changing, I decided something more adventurous was necessary and instead continued straight ahead up the hill into a wood that led to an Iron Age fort called The Ditches.

Mogg Forest is a beech wood that turns, in its northeast corner, into a dense, black conifer plantation. The atmosphere of a beech wood in any season is different from other woods. It is open and airy, the trunks are smooth and grey, and the leaves and light confer a kind of gentleness. Being autumn, this was a bronze gentleness. I had only this morning been looking up beech woods in East Anglia and had found something that I had never considered before: that almost no map with a wood marked on it will tell you what kind of wood it is, beyond deciduous or coniferous. The latter may be credited with the stomach-sinking word, ‘plantation’. Not even an online map with its interactive capabilities will tell you more than this. It first occurred to me that to expect this kind of information from a map perhaps carried the danger of leading down the route of the impossible, mind-bending imaginings of Jorge Luis Borges: a map that is a life-size replica of the landscape and cities it represents. Where do you stop? How much is enough information?

On reflection, however, it rather seemed to me a grave omission, akin to leaving a village unnamed. Especially since numerous oaks, elms and ashes on parish boundaries are named (and even sometimes followed by the the word ‘pollard’) on Ordnance Survey maps. Unless the wood is well known, belonging to a charity or institution, with its own webpage, you mostly have to rely on other people’s personal accounts or your own explorations to discover such things. There are, however, some advantages to this anonymity: all of the wood’s secrets are kept until we enter it ourselves, and we are allowed the full excitement of their (only ever partial) discovery.

The path turned up the hill towards the fort, becoming progressively more overgrown with brambles and bracken. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as some forts I have seen marked on maps have little left by which to identify them. This one, however, was large and impressive. It had double banks at least two or three metres high around most of the perimeter, with a ditch in between. In my ignorance about hill forts, I wondered if was possible the ditch could once have been a moat. I decided it would be unlikely that such a deep ditch could have been filled, and stayed filled, with water so high on a hill, even if the soil was clay. By process of elimination rather than being enlightened by any definitive explanations on the subject, I concluded during my research afterwards that this was indeed the case, and that the ramparts themselves would have provided sufficient defence for the fort.

I walked out into the field behind the fort through a wide gap in the banks, and followed the edge of the field back round to the wood. The path did not correspond to the one marked on the map, and after determining there was no other route to choose, I took a deep breath and started walking down the steep hill through the conifer plantation. It was everything the beech wood wasn’t: silent and eerie, lacking in life and light below the thick canopy, and, like a child’s fear of the dark, no amount of rationalisation could completely banish the anxiety that I felt rising in my chest.

Luckily the forest was narrow, covering only the hillside, so before long I emerged on to a meadow. Soon after, I reached the village of Easthope, despite encountering on the way a most unfriendly stile: the step was too low, the fence too high, the whole too narrow, and therefore the only practical way to attempt scaling it was to hold on to the posts on each side, which was impossible as one was covered with hawthorn, the other with blackthorn. Only after much cursing and awkward wobbling did I eventually succeed.

Finding the enticing fairy church ahead of me – diminutive, with a medieval timber-framed belfry – closed, I continued up the road and up the hill to reach Easthope Wood. I was still feeling less than impressed by my morning’s walk so far. Having also foolishly set off without any food, I decided to shorten my walk on Wenlock Edge and try my luck elsewhere, after buying lunch in Church Stretton. I settled on another, wilder walk from Little Stretton up a valley called Ashes Hollow, onto the moor, along to a spring and back down Town Brook valley.

As I was walking back through the steep woodland on Wenlock Edge I was stopped in my tracks by a sudden fresh, sweet smell in the air that always transports me straight to the Belizean rainforest – although actually I have noticed it in every rainforest I have visited. I have never worked out what that smell is; it is not a smell of flowers and seems to be the product of some magical interaction between rain, soil, leaves, sunshine and warm air. What surprises me most is that the same smell occurs in a temperate climate as in the tropics. I would like to know the recipe.

*********

By the time I reached Ashes Hollow the clouds had gathered again and were looking threatening, but the air was mild and humid, so I set off up the valley along a stream. The footpath did not leave the stream all the way up and this in itself was enough to make me happy : I love streams, no matter how small. Fast-flowing, rocky streams especially. I had chosen the perfect walk – I think it was at that moment the most beautiful valley I had ever met.

I had recently started reading Robert Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places and, as I walked, reflecting on my disappointment with the morning’s exploration (apart from the act of walking itself), and the contrasting exhilaration of the afternoon’s one, I thought about what wildness means to me.

I was clearly enjoying this walk more because it felt wilder, and further from civilisation, even though it was a ‘safe’ kind of wild that I was not worried about entering alone, armed with an Ordnance Survey Explorer map. I was also fully aware it was a historical and heavily human-influenced landscape, and was reminded of this every time I came across a sheep jumping away ahead of me amongst the bracken, or watching me from the other side of the valley. From that point of view, there is probably nowhere in the country that is wild. But I still feel that wildness exists wherever you can sense that the landscape, the elements, the vegetation or the wildlife are ultimately in control. Usually this also has the effect of making you feel small and insignificant – a therapeutic experience, if it does not involve fear – but I agree with Macfarlane’s discovery that this wildness can exist not only in a large space, but also in a tiny one, as in one of the grykes – cracks in a limestone pavement – that he found in Ireland.

I have such a place in my Suffolk garden: a hawthorn stump, hollow to below ground level – perhaps helped by some rabbit holes – with a miniature fungus forest growing inside, and many other things besides that you would need a small camera and light on a pole to discover. And, after many years of being ‘dead’, the stump has started to sprout again. Unexpectedly another image also comes to mind for the first time in a decade or more: a fiddler crab that I once saw sitting in the opening to a street drain in Belize City. The subversiveness of a small representative of the wild creeping in where humans believe they are in control is almost more reassuring than a vast wilderness: there is no doubt it will take over again as soon as it gets the chance.

Carding Mill Valley

There are two things I have noticed most here on the moor. The first is the subtle but surprisingly diverse and wonderful range of colours in a landscape one would expect to be relatively unaffected by the colours of autumn, populated as it is mostly by bracken, heather, gorse and grass. The second is what different creatures the trees are.

The first hawthorns I passed I thought were dead as they resembled the kind of tree sculpture that in Suffolk you only usually see in standing dead oaks. But many of them had berries on their branches, indicating that they were alive, their leaves already fallen. My hedge hawthorns at home are still green. These trees in the valleys and on the moors grow twisted and gnarled, at strange angles from the land, sculpted by the wind and rain. I could not stop staring at them, following the curves and angles of their trunks and branches. I had the strange sensation that, despite their seemingly closer affinity to the inanimate rocks around them than to living things, I was almost seeing the movement of their growth over the years up to the present moment, like watching a time-lapse film of hoar frost formation.

Their roots are almost as impressive as their branches, growing over the surfaces of rocks in a way that reminds me of the trees taking over the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Some are exposed and some covered with moss or a thin layer of soil. Some of the trees have toppled over and it is difficult to tell which part is root and which part is branch – on the whole they just carry on growing upwards or outwards from their fallen position. I found one tree that had its fallen trunk half buried in the earth, as though it had laid itself in order to sprout a new hedge. In reality though, this particular one simply continued to grow from its existing branches.

When I reached the top of the valley, the mist started to descend. A little more wildness had suddenly been added to the equation. I loved the mist even though it deprived me of the view from the top of the hill and made me slightly nervous about the return walk – I was worried I would run out of daylight if I continued on my intended route. Part of me wanted to stick to the original plan; I knew that as soon as I started down the valley the mist would disperse, and I liked the idea of a night, or at least dusk, walk. But I didn’t have a suitable torch with me and wasn’t confident enough that I could find the right path, and so decided that I should return the way I came. I could not get lost following the stream back down the valley, and the landscape would look thoroughly different in the opposite direction. This proved to be truer than I’d anticipated; there were several moments when I actually did not recognise having walked this way before. I must have been lost in a moment of daydreaming when I crossed the stream over some rocks on the way up.

I arrived at the bottom of the valley with a little dusk still to spare, and decided to sit by the stream for a while and enjoy the sound of flowing water in the fading light. Prompted by the onset of darkness, my thoughts ran again to the idea of wildness, and I realised for the first time that my desire for adventure and the unknown is usually, at least in part, a yearning for the wild. I was sure now it was this I was searching for all summer, without being fully conscious of it. I was not able to travel far at that time, but camping in secluded spots in my garden trying to imagine I was in an unknown wood, listening to unidentifiable night noises, watching shooting stars, learning more about the creatures and plants living around me, exploring ruins buried in overgrown scrub and swimming in the reservoir in the rain, were all ways of connecting with it. Now that I see how little it takes to find wildness, I will never want for it again, even when I have to stay close to home.

 

Leave a Reply